Why the fuss about ethics?

AWSELVA’s new column begins with an introduction to ethics. The column will provide analyses of issues facing the profession and consider various approaches to ethical reasoning

29 January 2018, at 2:49pm

Philosophers have been developing and proffering different ethical stances for centuries and the applicability of these ethical positions to society and to different sectors within society continues to raise dissension and argument. Ethical consideration of issues is an important tool for society to use and focuses on what is acceptable and what is not within a particular framework. Ethical theory is very varied and when the term is used in the veterinary context, it usually refers to a consequentialist, deontological or value-driven base. Ethical theory covers a much wider arc, but for this article, let’s just consider these.

Deontological arguments are rule-based (tell the truth with no exceptions), whereas consequentialists base their analysis on what brings the greatest benefit to the largest number (tell the truth, but not if it lessens the benefit to the most) and value-based ethics consider ethics from a particular value stance (tell the truth, but exceptions can be made if this might cause other values to be undermined). These ideas can complement each other and can help to provide a broader and potentially deeper understanding of the issues considered.

Why is ethical analysis important for vets?

Ethical analysis is there to help provide us with a way of considering our actions and the impact these may have not only on our patients, but also on their owners and on society. Ethical considerations help us to explore how we should treat different species.

Ethics can provide a framework within which we can consider the views of each interest group or stakeholder and where these views can be weighted. This matrix has the potential to provide a way to approach the development of a consensual outcome.

In human medicine, there exists a wealth of literature on professional ethics. The veterinary field lags behind, but is engaging in this developing area and including opportunities for exploring ethical issues during veterinary training. Our guide to professional conduct has now moved from the consideration of professional etiquette toward a code of professional ethics, and so it becomes important for us all to engage in the discussions this engenders.

The RCVS has instituted an ethics review process for those in practice wishing to carry out clinical research and universities, research institutes and other organisations where animal investigations or animals are used in science are now all subject to animal welfare and ethical review boards (AWERBs).

These boards champion an ethical stance and challenge protocols where there may be suggested actions that compromise animal welfare and where, for example, the mantra of the ‘three Rs’ (refinement, replacement, reduction) have not been adequately applied.

Effective welfare legislation

As this introduction is being written, the spectre of reducing our effective welfare legislation by failing to incorporate Article 13 of the treaty of Lisbon into UK legislation has arisen. This Article places a responsibility on government to consider the impact of policy or policy development on sentient animals. This legislation is important as under our animal welfare act, the duty of care is on the owner or keeper of the animal and although the government may choose to extend the animal population protected under the act under Section 1(3) of the AWA (2006), there is no element of duty to do this in consideration of other legislative impact.

There are opportunities to explore ethical issues in all areas of veterinary practice from disease control (e.g. bovine TB and control of disease in wildlife), in the correct usage and application of drugs (e.g. anthelminthic resistance and dispensing of anthelminthics; antimicrobial resistance and the use of antimicrobials in production and companion animals), through to understanding the environmental impact of rewilding (the introduction of lynx, wolves or beavers into UK habitats).

Ethical reasoning allows us to navigate the different interests and enables at least a consideration of the views of all parties to problems we face. In this column, we will explore these issues and encourage wider discussion of some of the problems we currently face.

Paul Roger is the chair of the Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law Veterinary Association (AWSELVA).